Nick Broomfield: “She very much reminded me of Margaret Thatcher”

The documentary maker on Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney and sex in Bedford.

After your last two projects, the drama films Ghosts and Battle for Haditha, what inspired you to return to your old style?

I’ve worked with lots of different styles. I did a couple of low-budget features using real people to act as themselves and I had embarked on a feature, The Catastrophist, using actors, and there was this endless process of getting it off the ground, so I thought it would be good to recharge my batteries and go back to my roots. Plus there were other things. There’s always an interaction between the personal and the work. My father had just died and was anxious to go and do something on the spur of the moment. The thought of going off to Alaska was actually rather appealing at that time.

Many of your subject seem to see themselves as victims, even when they’re not. Is that fair?

I think that’s true. [Palin] very much reminded me of Margaret Thatcher, who in her later years would only allow herself to be interviewed by designated interviewers. Sarah Palin was exactly like that. She only would be interviewed by Fox News. I think the paranoia you’re talking about comes with power. It’s somebody with an absolute philosophy who isn’t interested in people who disagree with them. None of them were interested in democracy and open discussion, or a belief that several brains looking at a problem will come up with a solution better than your own. They’re all very reluctant to embrace criticism and regard it as a destructive thing.

How big a role do you think Palin’s parents play in her life?

I think she’s incredibly close to her parents. Her father was her science teacher and track coach. Apparently as well as being somebody who was rightfully very popular as a teacher – he had all these mammoths and dead animals – he was incredibly brutal to people. I don’t think Sarah was a natural athlete and she was always trying to get his respect and approval. Basically, nothing was ever good enough. It’s interesting she married Todd, who was the best basketball player, the one star they had. She was always devoted more than anything else to impressing her father and having him on board, and he’s somebody who absolutely sees the world in black and white tones: you’re either with him or you’re against him.

Why are those who loved her so reluctant to embrace Mitt Romney?

Well, firstly he’s a Mormon. He’s not a fundamentalist Christian. He doesn’t embody all those fundamentalist positions. He’s changed his position on abortion, which is a fundamental thing for them. He’s changed his position on things like health care, so I think he’s basically toadying to the extreme right because he knows he needs their support to carry the Republican party in the election. But no one really believes that he’s a dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalist in the way Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann are. I think Romney is regarded as an outsider.

I see she has a TV show now.

She’s been under contract with Fox for some time. I think Murdoch regarded her as a rising star and believed in a lot of the stuff she was saying. Believed in her populism. That she was a great demagogue and had a loyal following. Maybe believed mistakenly that she was going to be vice-president and that his empire would benefit from her philosophy...

How many of you were there working on the film?

In Alaska there was a researcher who was looking at archives, contacting people and making phone calls, then somebody doing all the technical side of things – film making has become more and more technical: downloading footage, coming along on shoots, keeping everything going – and then Joan Churchill was the camerawoman and I was doing sound. So there was basically four of us. In post-production we probably had another three researchers. The Sarah Palin film was a frustrating film and it was very hard to get footage for stuff. It required more people than normal.

Do you think people have started to distrust you?

I think certain people do. I guess Sarah Palin obviously did. I think when I was doing things like Aileen or Kurt & Courtney, Biggie and Tupac, everything was fine, but I think probably right-wing politicians and those kinds of people do distrust me. And of course everything has got more difficult with the internet. You can find out what somebody’s done and how they’re perceived.

What are you up to now?

I’m just finishing an undercover film I did with the same journalist who I worked with on Ghosts, Hsiao-Hung Pai. She did a stint as a housemaid in a Chinese brothel in Bedford. Based on those studies we did another undercover film which is called Sex in Bedford and should be out some time in the new year.

Did you manage a cameo?

I did actually visit once, but no, I didn’t make a guest appearance as an evening customer.

"Sarah Palin: You Betcha!" and the "Nick Broomfield Documentary Collection" are available now on DVD from Universal Pictures (UK).

Nick Broomfield. Photo: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.